With multi-media now being a regular, if not expected, facet of the theatrical scene it is refreshing to see a company who are taking it back to basics. Puppet aficionados Blind Summit Theatre do just that with their low-tech version of George Orwell’s seminal 1984. Their consummate ‘here’s one I made earlier’ style makes for a vibrant evening that will open this text to an audience whose only knowledge of Big Brother is via Channel 4. But ultimately their image of this dystopia is too safe; if Orwell’s vision of the future was a boot stamping on a human face, Blind Summit choose to see it as a teenager’s trainer, tapping gently.
With nothing but ‘honest props’, titled scenes and a sardonically vocal chorus, Orwell’s tale of love, betrayal and the pointless fight for freedom is unveiled by seven comrades in an upfront comedic production that Brecht would have applauded roundly.
Blind Summit’s co-artistic directors, Mark Down and Nick Barnes, bring a three-dimensional comic book feel to each scene, both in the carefully outlined performances and quirky punchy set. Only a handful of puppets make an appearance but they certainly make a statement; their expressive heads made from angular cardboard and soft cotton bodies belying their basic construction to spring to life with great sophistication. In a reversal of power it is their style that leads the movement; the cast’s overblown physicality mirroring a puppet’s alien ability to be both loose and precise simultaneously.
And so these highly skilled performers are at once fluid rag dolls and stiff finger puppets. But whilst this playfully optimistic form makes for some amusing and impressive moments, it gets in the way of a true telling of Orwell’s desperate and sinister story. If Gergo Danka’s portrayal of O’Brien, albeit grotesquely impressive, reminds me of the mockable Gestapo office in ‘Allo Allo’, this cannot be a good thing. Only Julia Innocenti, whose Julia is a potent combination of sensual swinging hips and stubborn flashing eyes, and Simon Scardifield, with his wistful idealistic Winston, are allowed to break from the fold at any point and piercingly communicate with the audience.
Chris Branch’s haunting techno score, with its ambient melodies and witty computerized beats is at points disturbingly emotive, going some way to breaking the ‘jolly’ appeal of the rest. But ultimately the bite has been taken from this 1984, in a youth friendly make-over that will entertain but only superficially engage, never asking enough of its audience to fully explore the emotional terror at the centre of Orwell’s masterpiece.
Runs until 9th January 2010
Originally written for Whats On Stage